Why do so many PhD students publishing their medical theses in German resort to brazen plagiarism, even copying from people in their own research groups? We’re pleased to present a Q&A with Debora Weber-Wulff, based at the University of Applied Sciences HTW Berlin in Germany. She recently published a case study for the Council of Europe that shows a surprisingly high number of cases of plagiarism in medical PhD theses submitted to German universities, as well as a few in other European countries. Weber-Wulff is a member of the VroniPlag Wiki, a group of German-language scientists who have been scanning for — and publicly tracking — cases of plagiarism. They’ve published documentations on more than 155 cases so far, and begun investigations on over 200 more, including some very high-profile cases. We talked to Weber-Wulff about why plagiarism is such a problem in German medical PhD programs.
Retraction Watch: You note that German medical dissertations aren’t taken seriously, relative to many other countries. Why is that?
Weber-Wulff: Many of the medical dissertations are quite short, often simple statistical calculations on given data, or very shallow investigations. Scientists who have spent years in the lab or humanities academics who spent much time in libraries working on their dissertations tend to look down on medical doctorates as not being “real” research.
Perhaps it helps to understand that many German medical dissertations are written during medical studies and not after completion. Since the studies are grueling, students have little time to devote to research. Many look to save as much time as possible. Perhaps the advisor, also busy with taking care of patients, just says “have a look at what I’ve published and the medical dissertations I advised before you.” They brazenly misunderstand this as: Take those papers as a template, and just substitute your own data. It is, however, vital for medical research that students learn how to do research themselves, how to understand statistics, and how to communicate their results, giving credit where credit is due. They do a disservice to their readers if they do not make clear where materials — no matter if overview of the literature, methods, or discussion — was previously published.
RW: When looking for plagiarism as a member of VroniPlag Wiki, it’s not as simple as running a paper through a detection software, such as Turnitin. Can you briefly describe your method?
Weber-Wulff: Generally, someone will have already found a text parallel with a previously published text, so this text is compared to the paper in question in order to find more portions of text taken from this source. There is a simple tool that compares two texts and marks all of the text parallels. If a text is not available digitally, it can be easily scanned and the text extracted using standard tools.
Otherwise, a good place to start is to look at the bibliography. Are the references consistent? Is there a strange entry that one could google to find a source? Then one chooses a page more or less at random and reads it. Does the tone change? Is one paragraph in perfect grammar, the next one full of spelling errors? Start googling the perfect grammar. Google Books is another good place to look, if the snippets look promising, then a book can be ordered from the library. Or one can take all of the references given in the paper, digitize them, and compare them with the dissertation. It is strange, but many people put the sources for their plagiarism in the reference section, but do not use quotation marks, although they have taken text verbatim and extensively.
RW: What have your results been so far?
Weber-Wulff: One can’t say anything about the rates of plagiarism, as the sample was not representative and one can never determine that a paper is plagiarism-free. It can only be demonstrated that there is plagiarism by presenting the plagiarism together with a source. What one can say, is that far too much plagiarism has been found. So far, VroniPlag Wiki has documented plagiarism in 88 medical and dental theses, as well as PhDs in in pretty much all subject areas from chemistry to theology.
The sources for the plagiarism were surprisingly often published by people from the same research group, but also from dissertations defended at other universities. Three dissertations were found that had plagiarized
text on 100 % of the pages, and on close examination one could see that the data was also faked. The numbers had been changed, but the percentages or the standard deviations were not adjusted!
We also found quite a number of cases that took basic medical knowledge word-for-word from the Wikipedia or other online sources without reference.
RW: Was there a particular case that was most memorable for you?
Weber-Wulff: Many are memorable, each in a different way. I think that the chain of plagiarisms found — a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a plagiarism — was the most memorable, particularly as the “authors” were dentists researching ape eyes. Two of the plagiarisms had identical pictures, supposedly of retina cells in different ape species.
A very troubling thesis copied 9 out of 61 pages verbatim and without reference from one article in the Wikipedia, but the university didn’t feel that it needed to take action on the case, as it wasn’t proven that this was done “on purpose”. I can’t explain how so much of the Wikipedia can be found in a thesis except by intentional copy & paste.
RW: The same member of VroniPlag Wiki who discovered the plagiarism in former Education Minister Annette Schavan’s thesis also recently documented extensive plagiarism in the German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen’s thesis. Is it different when a team member discovers plagiarism by such a high-profile person?
Weber-Wulff: The only difference is that the press reports only on high-profile persons when they are politicians. The plagiarisms that trouble me more are those by people who are currently working in academia, either as professors or as researchers. How will these persons be able to teach good academic practice, when they obviously were not able to demonstrate it in their own theses?
RW: Do you suspect plagiarism occurs more commonly in medical dissertations from Germany than elsewhere? If so, why?
Weber-Wulff: I have given up making estimates or predictions, because I tend to be wrong. I did not think that the amount of plagiarism that has been documented to date would be found! And there are so many more that have not been documented, because no one felt like documenting them yet. All I can state is that there is plagiarism, and far too much of it, unfortunately.
RW: The paper notes that the European Research Council does not accept a German “Dr. med.” as equivalent to a Ph.D., which limits medical graduates’ job opportunities in other countries. What can be done to address this problem, so German students can be on more equal footing with their peers?
Weber-Wulff: The German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) has repeatedly pointed out the problem. German students have to prove that they can do research, either by additional research experience or by having a habilitation accepted, in order to be considered for such grants.
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